• Key point. Minors who are sexually molested by church workers may not sue their church after the statute of limitations has expired. Generally, the statute of limitations begins to run on a minor’s 18th birthday. In some states the statute of limitations is suspended if a church “actively conceals” the basis for a lawsuit from a victim.
A federal court in Connecticut ruled that the statute of limitations did not necessarily prevent an adult from suing a diocese for injuries he allegedly suffered as a minor when he was molested by a priest. A young priest served a church in Connecticut from 1961 to 1963. He initiated relationships with a small group of adolescent boys who were interested in liturgical reforms. The priest not only acted as a mentor and spiritual advisor to the boys, but also abused his position of authority and trust by inducing them to engage in sexual relations with him. The priest left the church to accept a position as spiritual director at a Catholic university. Shortly after the priest accepted this new position, the diocese received a complaint alleging that he had sexually molested a 19-year-old student at the university. The diocese’s report of the matter indicates that the priest admitted to the incident, and informed diocesan officials that “his problem,” which he “discovered” only recently, was known to only a small number of other people. The report noted that the priest denied having molested any boys in his previous parish. The report concluded that the priest was to be removed from his duties. Eventually, the priest was sent to New Mexico for several months of psychiatric treatment. Thereafter, the diocese consistently turned down his requests to resume work as a priest in Connecticut. However, the diocese continued to provide him with financial support and took no steps to alter his status as a priest.
For the next few years, the priest spent time in California, New Mexico, Maryland, and Connecticut, functioning in a variety of ecclesiastical and nonecclesiastical positions. In January of 1966, while he was serving as a parish priest in New Mexico, the diocese became aware of another complaint relating to his ministry in Connecticut. In late 1963, the priest was alleged to have offered a “solicitation to homosexual misconduct” to a high school student who was a member of his church. The boy later required hospitalization for psychiatric reasons, and his parents decided to approach diocesan officials directly, hoping to obtain compensation for the mental illness they attributed to the priest’s misconduct. The diocese apparently declined to provide support for the boy’s psychiatric care. Despite this second allegation of misconduct, the priest continued to function in his capacity as a priest under the auspices of the diocese. He ultimately settled in Maryland and developed a successful career as a writer, inspirational speaker, retreat leader, and television minister. In 1992 and 1993, allegations of sexual abuse arose in connection with his sojourns in New Mexico and California. In 1993 the diocese was sued by a 45-year-old man (the “victim”) who claimed to have been molested by the priest between 1961 and 1963. The victim claimed that his memory of the molestation was “repressed” until it was recovered through psychotherapy in 1991. The victim sued the diocese for emotional distress, breaching a fiduciary duty, negligent retention of the priest, and negligent training and supervision of the priest. The diocese asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of the statute of limitations and the fact that it had no prior notice of the priest’s propensity to abuse children.
The court noted that the statute of limitations under Connecticut law required the victim to file his lawsuit by his 35th birthday. Since this deadline was missed by ten years, the statute of limitations barred the lawsuit. However, the court noted that the statute can be suspended if a defendant “fraudulently conceals” the existence of a cause of action. Had the diocese fraudulently concealed from the victim the existence of a cause of action? The court concluded that it may have done so, and it referred this question to a jury for a final determination. The court observed that “[t]here is little dispute that the diocese intended to conceal [the priest’s] misconduct. Nor can there be much doubt that the diocese acted on this intent, as by removing [the priest] from the state as quickly as possible after the incident involving [the student].” In other words, the actions of the diocese, in response to the allegations made against the priest, were designed to conceal the nature of his misconduct.
The court added that “fraudulent concealment” does not necessarily require proof of a specific act on the part of the diocese. It also can be established by demonstrating that a fiduciary relationship existed between the diocese and the victim. If such a relationship existed, then the diocese was under an affirmative duty to warn the victim of the priest’s propensities. A failure to warn constitutes a form of “fraudulent concealment” that would suspend the statute of limitations. The court decided to let the jury determine whether or not the relationship between the victim and diocese was a fiduciary one.
Fiduciary Duty to Disclose
If a fiduciary relationship existed between the diocese and victim, this not only would suspend the statute of limitations, but also would constitute an independent basis of liability for failure to warn potential victims of the priest’s dangerous propensities.
Application. This case illustrates an important point-persons who were molested as children during church activities may be able to sue their church after the statute of limitations expires, if church leaders “fraudulently concealed” from them the existence of a potential legal claim. Fraudulent concealment may consist of specific actions designed to keep relevant information from a molestation victim. But it also will exist if a “fiduciary relationship” exists between the church and victim. If such a relationship exists, then the church has a fiduciary duty to disclose the basis of liability to the victim, and a failure to do so constitutes fraudulent concealment that suspends the statute of limitations. This means that molestation victims may be able to sue their church many years after the statute of limitations expires. Martinelli v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocese, 989 F. Supp. 110 (D. Conn. 1997). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members, Negligence as a Basis for Liability, Denominational Liability]
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